There are a ton of Mardi Gras survival guides out there, chock-full of great advice for Carnival newbies: drink lots of water, wear comfortable shoes, be nice to the cops, respect the marching band chaperones.
Having done parades since I was a toddler, though, I already know how to make it through the season mostly unscathed as an individual. What I had to figure out as I got older was how to navigate the scene as a parent.
To many outsiders, it seems like a questionable or even irresponsible decision to take your kids to Mardi Gras — because all you see on the national news is topless drunken glitter-covered debauchery. To people who live here, however, it would be irresponsible not to take your children to parades. In fact, many of my high school friends either moved back to the city when they had kids or come back for Carnival every year with their families in tow.
As long as you stay out of the Quarter, you’re not going to encounter anything too scandalous, and I find that parades are actually a perfect way to teach my kids life lessons about disappointment (you didn’t manage to connect with the person you knew who was riding, even though you knew where they were and screamed their name repeatedly), unfairness (the guy clearly meant that stuffed animal for you, but the kid behind you snatched it out of the air instead), the importance of endurance/persistence (OK, you didn’t catch anything good from that float, but look — there’s another one just after this dance troupe), and the vagaries of fortune (some years you get a shoe; some years you don’t).
Attending parades with kids is an amazing tradition, but even a few years of trying to impart my years of acquired Carnival wisdom on my visiting college friends who’d grown up in Missouri or Nebraska did not prepare me for how much different the whole experience would be with kids along.
Here are my top 5 Carnival with Kids tips:
1. This is not so much a tip as a straight-up product endorsement. Buy this. Your kids are going to get so. damn. many. stuffed animals, and they are going to clutter up your car, your dining room table, your breakfast nook, and anywhere else in your home that is currently open space. If you’re lucky (I am never lucky), you can bag these up and hide them in the garage for a month or so and then, if your kids don’t notice they’re gone, quietly give them to Goodwill or a family who rides in the St. Patrick’s parades. If your kids are like mine, which is to say “hoarders who remember every plush snake and purple, green, and gold bear they’ve ever touched,” get this bag. It doubles as seating, and it’s easy to restuff.
2. Instead of bagged ice to cool off your drinks in your ice chest (langniappe tip: Bring an ice chest, stocked with water, juice, and your adult beverages of choice), use soft ice packs or bags of frozen peas. If no one gets hit in the face with a bag of beads or a trombone, you’ll still have cold drinks. If someone does get injured (and someone will almost certainly get injured), you’ll have an ice pack at the ready.
3. If you have a young kid who is prone to wandering, write your cell phone number on his/her arm in Sharpie. The year Ruby was 3, I lost her at Zoo to Do for Kids (she went out the back of the bouncy house while I was standing at the front), French Quarter Fest (she saw a friend, darted off, and got lost in the crowd), and City Park (she went to the bathroom without telling me). Every time, lovely strangers helped reunite us, but they could have done so much easier if they’d been able to call me. So while we were walking to Bayou Boogaloo, I had a flash of inspiration, dragged her into Terranova’s, and tattooed her with my cell phone number. (Of course, I haven’t lost her since, and Georgia is my Velcro baby who never leaves my side, but I really wish I’d thought to do this to Ruby sooner.)
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Mardi Gras is family-friendly at most points along the route, but that doesn’t mean it’s Disney World. You’re going to see drunk people. You’re going to hear bad language. You’re probably going to walk through a cloud of pot smoke. Your kids might catch lacy panties from a float. If these things bother you, you might not want to go to parades — but if these things bother you, you might not want to live in New Orleans at all. By the time she was 4, Ruby could easily side-step a puddle of puke; she had cheered on a guy doing a kegstand; and she once told me she had to potty while we were in a parking lot but not to worry because she could just “cop a squat.” I try to use all of this as a learning experience for my kids; there’s something unforgettable about watching someone throw up in a gutter, and I hope they’ll use that image to help inform their own behavior as they get older.
5. Relax your standards. I wrote about this last year, and it’s true every year — during Carnival time, my kids are filthy, fueled mostly by sugar, and never get enough sleep. Homework may or may not be done; it is definitely not done to usual standards. My house is a complete disaster. My car is even worse. I special order hand sanitizer normally, but on Sunday, Ruby plucked a doubloon from a puddle and then ate a piece of fried chicken. My basic mantra during Carnival is: “King Cake is breakfast. Dirt builds their immune systems. Reading logs are a sham.”
Have fun; stay safe; and if you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments!